Ruban Nielson has achieved a tantric sense of comfort in his songwriting, hovering through Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s fourth full length record, Sex And Food, legs crossed, eyes closed, surrounded by an inviting blue luminescence. A heaving amalgamation of his work hitherto, Nielson extends an invitation to a world of his own, a painting of some folkloric, psychedelic disco in three acts, three flashes of solace in an ever crumbling dystopian state. A beat up world falling to the powers of substance abuse and greed. Jangling guitars glide through swarms of fuzzy vocals. Soft crunchy rhythm sections break underfoot as glimmering synth lines fall gently from the sky, covering the land. This concoction of sounds comes together create a world that is simultaneously familiar and futuristic; a universe where Akira was directed by Daft Punk, and set in Middle Earth. What follows is a review/hypothesised synopsis of the album, in three acts.
ACT I – A New World
(A God Called Hubris, Major League Chemicals, Ministry of Alienation, Hunnybee)
The curtains are abruptly drawn on a hazy world, a world full of debauchery; gun shots, sirens, steam rising up from man-holes. The trip hop infused opener and slingshot guitar lick in Major League Chemicals hurl us from the 1920s to a distant future where the government are microdosing the same sleazy, back-alley crooks. Pastel pin-stripes. A mournful guitar-driven melody gives flash shots of neon depravity. As the lament of Ministry of Alienation carries us across the city, the gravity of the situation sets in. We find our protagonist leaving the city, his home. As he walks, he cries: “… Can’t escape the 20th Century/Handing in my resignation/Ministry of alienation.” The song introduces a somber but hopeful outlook to the album, as though Nielson rues letting go of the comfort of familiarity, but is avowed to see an end to a lifestyle he couldn’t leave soon enough. Eventually, he comes to an ancient pair of doors, the first notes in Hunnybee hum, as though muffled, from inside. The song kicks in as the doors open on a futuristic Gatsby-esque party, glittery synth lines raining from the ceiling. Minimal composition and tight-knit instrumentation give themselves to the first glimpse of hope in the album. Relax, rejoice, unwind.
ACT II – All Things Must Come to an End
(Chronos Feasts on His Children, American Guilt, The Internet of Love (That Way), Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays)
With dawn, the sun beats against an overcast sky, a barren land bleached in a shameful glare. Nielson, reeling from the night before, remarks, “Chronos feasts on his children/Like turning mango flesh.” Time floats by in this feeble absurdity for just under two minutes. Weightless, stumbling. Laughter can be heard in the distance. Suddenly, anger swallows the American Guilt that lingered, the ground comes rushing to meet our hero with the full force of everything he chose to leave behind. The bliss that came from leaving is cracked; the pieces are present, but forever marred. There is no running. The dry and echoic production on The Internet of Love (That Way) evokes a sense of those broken pieces being handled, while the balladic songwriting paints a picture of a wandering Nielson, reminiscent of the first act. This repetition suggests that this cycle of self-destruction is inescapable. Although, there is a feeling of acceptance introduced by the end of this track, and it carries through into Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays, the second trial in this disco crusade. A parallel could be drawn between this and Hunnybee, with its disco stylings and delicate synth work, though this time around with a kind of learned wariness or maturity to the perils of the cycle.
ACT III – The Solemnity of Acceptance
(This Doomsday, How Many Zeros, Not in Love We’re Just High, If You’re Going to Break Yourself)
The second recovery. Dodging punches. A solemn disposition and a rushed tempo. A sense of urgency to get through it all again, properly equipped. The cycle continues as the protagonist has accepted This Doomsday. As he arrives at the third and final disco/RnB track on the album, Nielson feels no desire to attend the party. He maintains a distance, and from this vantage he notices that what once seemed like an indulgent disco is really another episode in an animalistic cycle. As the final sounds of the last party fade in the distance, we find ourselves in an intimate setting as Nielson drops to his knees in admittance. Not in Love We’re Just High resounds with repentance, with the crux of the song (and the emotional course of the album) emanating waves of radiance and truth, and triumph remains. The album closes with an advisory ballad from the enlightened narrator; the hook ringing out “If you’re going to break yourself/You’re gonna break me.”
There may be those who consider this album a little repetitive or regurgitative (of itself and Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s previous work) and admittedly by the third smooth disco track on the album you may start to feel the same way, but I’d like to pose that what we’re really seeing here is an evolution in comfortable, refined songwriting. There are subtleties in songs like Hunnybee, honed composition and tightening of musicianship, that show a patient growth in Nielson’s work. Even trips into intricate and complex guitar work and song structure across the album affirm his newly assured and definite voice, which is at times redolent of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s cryptic and often nearing ironic mastery of pop songwriting.
Though there is no definite thematic to this album, and it is technically not a concept album, motifs of substance abuse, escape and alienation ring true throughout. Even the structure of the album plays out similarly to a helpless cycle of drug addiction. Once these things are paired with Nielson’s intensely visual and colourful songwriting, it’s hard to not attach a cinematic narrative to the album. It just goes to show that any album can concept album, you just have to ~believe~. peace
Cover art property of Jagjaguwar Records, 2018.